My Garden is a Death Trap for Plants! Disease?

toxcrusadr Clay Soil(Zone 6a - MO)June 4, 2012

I have a chronic and increasingly worse problem growing things in my vegetable garden. They wilt and die and it does not seem to be related to nutrients, water, light or insects. I�d appreciate any advice on how to identify and treat it.

I apologize for the long post but I am trying to include as many pertinent facts as possible.


Tomatoes and peppers grow slowly and are sickly looking � worse over the last several seasons.

Rhubarb (which grows well in our area) wilts and dies, first in hotter weather, but this spring, they declined almost as soon as we set out new plants. Other plants from the same batch planted at our other rural property (in much poorer soil) are thriving. A remaining established rhubarb looks like it is dying after a lackluster spring performance.

Basil plants never make it through the summer. They might grow to pretty good size, but one branch at a time will wilt and die and an entire plant can be lost in a couple weeks.

Similar symptoms on cukes/melons etc. but we also have cuke beetles, vine borers and squash bugs so who knows. I pretty much gave up trying to grow curcurbits a few years back.

The most shocking item is that our 15-yr old Concord grape next to the garden, which has produced well for years, sprouted, looked sickly, and is now dead, every leaf.


Location central MO, house built in 1989, former farm field, cut down several feet into clay soil, approx. 4-6" heavy clay topsoil replaced.

Beginning in �91 we tilled in organic matter steadily: homemade compost, bags of topsoil, compost, even a little sand and sandbags leftover from floods. I have used a small amount of City yard waste compost, and one or two loads of manure several years back.

I tested the soil this spring since it had not been done in about 15 yrs. Shows high in everything, 9.6% organic matter, excessive K so we planned to only use N fert when the plants seemed to need it. I did not have N tested but it is probably high given the other results. Unless high nutrients can kill your garden, I doubt the soil is the problem.

This is not weather related since we have had a variety over the last several years � cold and hot, wet and dry.

Stopped walking on it a few years back and created 4x10 raised beds. Now about 4-6" above the surroundings. Paths are mulched with sawdust, wood chips etc.

Over the years we used in the yard many many loads of free City yard waste mulch. None of this directly on the garden beds but some has been used in the paths. I suspect a lot of crap (diseased plants etc.) gets dumped at the mulch sites and although the mulch piles heat up, the stuff does not fully compost.

I have not made a very big effort to keep dead tomato plants, etc. out of my compost so I am recycling everything.

I have tried mulching my tomatoes as soon as planted but they always get blight from the bottom. But they used to produce anyway, and the last couple of years they just don�t grow fast enough to stay ahead of the blight.

Trees have grown up somewhat but we�re still getting a few hours of midday sun and some late afternoon sun before sunset. I don�t think it�s a sun problem although more would be better. We have some tree roots getting in (mostly silver maple) but I dig each bed every couple years to cut them out. No allelopathic trees around, only oak, maple, cottonwood and Bradford pear within 100 ft.

I tried solarizing a couple of beds two years ago, cleared in the spring, wet down, covered with clear plastic for 6 weeks. I planted fall crops after that. Didn�t seem to make much difference.

Do I have a massive infection with verticillium wilt or something? What should I do? I have the best soil on the block but I can't grow anything in it.

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Steve Massachusetts Zone 5b

One way that you can rule out water, light, nutrients and/or insects is to try growing something (i.e. Tomatoes or Peppers) in a container using bagged garden soil mix, in or near your raised beds. If that doesn't do well then it isn't the soil or a pathogen.

You said your property is a former farm field. Do you have any idea of what was grown on that farm? Have you been rotating your crops to different areas in order to avoid pathogens in the soil?

One thing you can do to identify diseases is to take a plant that is diseased, pack it up and send it to your local University or Extension service Plant Disease program and pay to have it tested. It's expensive but it will tell you for sure if you are dealing with pathogens that were left in the soil from when it was a farm, or from the city compost or some other source.

BTW, the reason why many soil tests don't give a value for N is that it's really volatile and is usually used up by the end of the growing season. Something like Soybean meal (7-1-1) will give you decent results, and it's cheap at the local feed store.


    Bookmark   June 4, 2012 at 2:58PM
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toxcrusadr Clay Soil(Zone 6a - MO)

I am in my third year of growing a few tomatoes in pots and they do wonderfully. Perhaps with even fewer hours of sun where they are located.

The old farm was soybeans and wheat, but since we are 20+ years out from that and my garden produced pretty well the first few years, I don't think it's related to the farming.

I do rotate my tomatoes and peppers each year among the 6 or so raised beds. I have grown rhubarb at opposite ends (25 ft apart) and it fails in both places. We had a few good years of rhubarb till it started dying more than living.

I am working on getting in touch with the local Master Gardeners and Univ. Extension for some local help. I will send in plants for testing if I have too, I guess the question is whether it will change the answer from whatever general treatment should be done based on the symptoms.

Thanks for the N info, I'm familiar with that which is why I didn't spend the extra $ for the N test.

    Bookmark   June 4, 2012 at 4:04PM
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I look on some of the free waste compost sites with a jaundiced eye. You don't really know what chemicals may have been introduced into yard waste or mulch.

    Bookmark   June 4, 2012 at 6:02PM
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What a stinking shame, tox. Sounds like you'll be doing all the right and necessary things to get to the root of these problems. Agree with calliope about the questionable content of city or county generated compost.

Fingers crossed for you.

    Bookmark   June 4, 2012 at 7:01PM
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Could some of the sand you used have been beach sand that contained salt? That would certainly kill plants. Who knows what kind they stuck in the sandbags at flood time!

    Bookmark   June 4, 2012 at 7:20PM
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hortster(6a, southcentral KS)

"Over the years we used in the yard many many loads of free City yard waste mulch."
Any chance that your City stuff had Clopyralid?

    Bookmark   June 4, 2012 at 8:20PM
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tishtoshnm Zone 6/NM

I can say that the symptoms on tomatoes do not sound like clopyralid. The clopyralid contaminated manure I spread in my garden caused the tomatoes to grow too quickly. I believe that I read that it affects a growth hormone in plants that cause them to grow too quickly. Also, it would cause deformed fruits. So I think you can probably cross that off the list.

I am sorry you have to go through this tox, I hope you can get this diagnosed and dealt with.

    Bookmark   June 4, 2012 at 9:21PM
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hortster(6a, southcentral KS)

Ohio State research disagrees with rapid overgrowing of tomatoes. A snipet:
"Birds are quite sensitive to diazinon poisoning, and as little as 2 parts per million (ppm) of 2,4-D (Weed-B-Gone) or 50 parts per billion of Clopyralid significantly reduce the growth of sensitive plants like tomato."

Here is a link that might be useful: Ohio State Paper

    Bookmark   June 4, 2012 at 9:32PM
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tishtoshnm Zone 6/NM

I perhaps should have been clearer. We found that initially the clopyralid caused rapid growth, leading the plant to be spindly and then it tapered off but caused other very noticeable signs on the tomatoes such as severely deformed leaves. However, they never did just wilt and die. We were told by the county extension agent that the main vein in the leaf would be squiggly which is what we found on many of our affected pepper plants. Also, unless it was re-applied, the symptoms would decrease over time not continue to get worse.

Here is a link that might be useful: Post with links to pics of the clopyralid affected toms

    Bookmark   June 4, 2012 at 10:02PM
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jean001a(Portland OR 7b)

Read the info from Washington State University re contaminated organic matter. Includes an easy bio-assay you can do.

Here is a link that might be useful: Clopyralid in Compost (also manure, straw)

    Bookmark   June 5, 2012 at 1:57AM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

man o'live.. you peeps can go a long ways .. w/o pix ...

everything here is supposition and speculation ...

show us a pic.. and then at least we can get on the same page ...


    Bookmark   June 5, 2012 at 7:41AM
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NM z5, right? That is such a different environment from the ones I know that it would be hard to know where to start figuring out the problems, other than it is most likely a plurality.

    Bookmark   June 5, 2012 at 9:02AM
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toxcrusadr Clay Soil(Zone 6a - MO)

Missouri, Zone 5. No saltwater beaches around here!

I will post some pics but it may be a couple days. Good point though.

I have not used much of the city *mulch* (it is not properly composted, many wood chunks and chips in it) in or around this veggie garden. We've used tons of it on perennial beds, around trees etc. and never have problems with it there. It may have been the original vector, but I think I've spread whatever it is myself by composting all my garden waste and using most of the resulting compost back in the veggie garden.

Chemicals from outside sources, unlikely. It's been creeping up for years and I've brought in less and less outside organic matter during those same years as we transitioned from building good soil to maintenance.

I've had more than one suggestion to take a year off and solarize the whole thing. So far it seems to be the most reasonable approach, as much as I hate it.

    Bookmark   June 5, 2012 at 2:54PM
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There are very few plant diseases that have a widespread effect on a whole range of plants - most are quite host specific - so it is highly unlikely your garden has been visited by some far-reaching plant plague. However, it is possible that there could be some chemical contamination although I would also consider that to be rather improbable. A soil test for contaminates would be the only way to determine.

Clopyralid (and its relatives) too has a rather specific target range, affecting plants primarily in the Solanaceae and Asteraceae. I believe I'd be most concerned about cultural issues and/or insufficiently 'cooked' or aged compost. And this is where I'll diverge from popular opinion regarding municipal compost - often this is a much more finished, better product than what the average homeowner can create, simply due to the temperature, size and efficiency of their large scale composting operations.

I'd reconsider solarizing. Killing off everything in the soil is never a great idea - most what's alive in there is good stuff and takes years to replace. And the only beneficial thing solarizing would accomplish is to eliminate some sort of soil pathogen.....again, it is unlikely any single pathogen would affect an entire garden. Taking a year off may not be a bad idea but rather than solarizing, I'd try some cover crops to naturally get the soil back into snuff.

    Bookmark   June 5, 2012 at 3:59PM
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tsugajunkie z5 SE WI

Any chance of herbicide drift? Your place was a former farm field, any other farming still going on nearby? Lawn service of neighbors?


    Bookmark   June 5, 2012 at 6:13PM
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It's odd that it would affect EVERY plant. If its unlikely to be a chemical, then I'm betting it's lack of sunlight. 3 hours of midday sun isn't enough to grow almost anything, certainly not tomatoes. They like 12+ hours if possible. Maple trees cast very heavy shade so not much can grow underneath them. You really might need to take some trees down for a successful garden.

I agree with another poster, that you should try growing in a container and see if those plants grow ok.

    Bookmark   June 6, 2012 at 10:28AM
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toxcrusadr Clay Soil(Zone 6a - MO)

Well, let's see now.

Some plants are not affected at all. Sweet potatoes grow well. Regular potatoes get yellow, wilt and die in about July. Wife is always asking why we only have new potatoes and I tell her the tops died so there's no point in leaving them there. Oddly, this spring the radishes looked great, but did not have bulbs, mostly only tops. Weird. Strawberries planted next to the rhubarb seem fine, low fruiting but at least not diseased.

There could be sunlight problems, certainly a declining yield over time from maters and peppers could be explained that way. It does not explain the dead grape, rhubarb, basil, etc.

I use my compost reasonably soon after finishing but I don't think it's significantly undercooked. Usually it's at least 6 - 9 mo old. I use a lot of grass clippings and if anything some of my mixes are probably heavy on the greens. I use a shovel full for each tomato, etc. hole so I'm not generally loading the whole bed with a lot of it. I would be surprised if this stuff was tying up N.

I will park the solarizing idea gardengal, I'm already planted for this year so wasn't going to do it now anyway.

No farming nearby, surrounded by houses for several blocks. Neighbors on that side are 'lawn people' but I believe they spread granules instead of spray. Will check.

I will post my container tomato pics, they are gorgeous. Although since they are in store bought potting mix 75 ft. away I'm not sure what that's going to tell us.

Thanks for your continued head scratching. It may be a combination of things.

    Bookmark   June 8, 2012 at 6:34PM
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tropical_thought(San Francisco)

That preen stuff can travel in the soil from water and kill stuff. I used it once under a bench, but it ended up making a huge brown spot in the lawn, when I had a lawn. The big spot about 6 feet by 4 feet was next to the bench. It took me a long time to figure this out. I don't have the bench or the lawn any more.

    Bookmark   June 9, 2012 at 3:07PM
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